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American industrialist William Niehaus is taken in a Venezuelan army truck in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, following his release from kidnappers by Venezuelan troops. Marks made by handcuffs can be seen on both of Niehaus' hands. Originally published July 2, 1979. (AP)
American industrialist William Niehaus is taken in a Venezuelan army truck in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, following his release from kidnappers by Venezuelan troops. Marks made by handcuffs can be seen on both of Niehaus' hands. Originally published July 2, 1979. (AP)

William Niehous survived three years in captivity in Venezuela Add to ...

William Niehous, an American businessman from Ohio, had been given up for dead by almost everyone but his family when he emerged from the Venezuelan jungle on June 30, 1979 – gaunt, bearded and longhaired as a hermit – three years, four months and two days after being kidnapped by leftist guerrillas.

Mr. Niehous, who died on Oct. 9 at 82, was the head of Venezuelan operations for Owens-Illinois, an American glass bottle company, when he was drugged and abducted from his Caracas home on Feb. 27, 1976. His captors accused the company of bribery and other corrupt dealings with the Venezuelan government. After a few months, the government stopped negotiating with them.

Mr. Niehous was rescued by accident: Rural police officers searching for cattle thieves in a southern province stumbled upon Mr. Niehous chained to a pole in a rancher’s hut. The police shot and killed two armed men guarding him, handcuffed Mr. Niehous, and marched him to the nearest police station. They did not know who he was.

His rescue and reunion with his wife, Donna, were worldwide news.

“He came back the same man he had always been, as far as I could tell,” Ms. Niehous said in an interview on Tuesday. “He was never bitter, never let the experience define him.”

Mr. Niehous died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease in Ottawa Hills, Ohio, his wife said. He leaves two sons and four grandchildren. One son predeceased him in 2012.

Mr. Niehous said he had endured the kidnapping ordeal by setting goals – to survive until the next Wednesday, for instance, and then the Wednesday after that. He taught his captors to play poker, got them to teach him dominoes, debated the merits of capitalism and Marxism with them. In captivity, boredom could be more corrosive than hunger, he found.

A lifelong tendency to take people at their word led him to trust his captors, he said.

“From the first day until the last,” he told interviewers, “the kidnappers said that I would never be shot, never be killed, that they would release me alive. Why, I don’t know, except they said they were not assassins.”

William Frank Niehous was born on Aug. 11, 1931, in Toledo, Ohio, to Henry Niehous and the former Ruth Schelling. He graduated from Miami University of Ohio in 1953 and joined Owens-Illinois two years later, after service in the army. He had managed company operations in Mexico City and Madrid before accepting the Caracas position in 1974. With three school-age sons, he and his wife agreed that this third foreign posting would be their last. They found a home in a fashionable neighbourhood in the city.

The couple were preparing to leave the house for a Carnival party on Feb. 27, 1976, when their maid went to answer the door and found men in police uniforms standing outside. Sensing something suspicious about them, Mr. Niehous ran to the door and tried to force it closed. But he was too late: one man had lodged a foot inside, and the rest pushed their way in. The kidnappers drugged both Mr. Niehous and his wife with a chloroform-like anesthetic, tied them up and dragged Mr. Niehous away. The children were not harmed.

A Marxist group calling itself the Argimiro Gabaldon Revolutionary Command claimed responsibility for the abduction. The group ultimately demanded that the company pay a $3.5-million ransom, distribute food to the poor and buy advertising space in foreign newspapers to publish a statement accusing Owens-Illinois of corruption and meddling in Venezuela’s domestic politics.

Tensions between Owens-Illinois and President Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela came to a boil when the company, against Mr. Perez’s wishes, proceeded to have the statement printed in The New York Times, Le Monde in Paris and The Times of London. In response, the government cut off communication with the kidnappers and threatened to nationalize Owens-Illinois’s plants. Mr. Niehous heard the news on a transistor radio carried by his captors.

He never saw their faces. About a dozen captors who rotated in guarding him from hideout to hideout always wore masks. Only during his rescue, when the police unmasked and shot the two men guarding him, did he get a good look at any of them.

“Why they were killed like that – executed on the spot – we never understood,” Mrs. Niehous said.

She had returned to Toledo with the children six months after the kidnapping and had remained in contact with Venezuelan officials and American diplomats in Caracas while telling reporters that she would never give up hope.

Among his kidnappers, two later emerged as close advisers to Hugo Chavez, the socialist Venezuelan leader. One, Gabriel Puerta Aponte, died in a 1992 coup attempt led by Mr. Chavez in which more than 100 people were killed and for which Mr. Chavez was jailed. The other, Carlos Lanz Rodriguez, a sociologist, became education minister after Mr. Chavez was freed and elected president in 1998.

Mr. Niehous said he was surprised when Mr. Rodriguez and several other political figures admitted their role in the kidnapping in 2004. “But that’s history,” he told The Toledo Blade, adding that he had never taken his abduction personally. “I was just a symbol of what they were against,” he said.

After retiring as Owens-Illinois’s vice president for technology in 1988, Mr. Niehous joined the boards of the Toledo YMCA, the Toledo Symphony, the Toledo Museum of Art and the Toledo Zoo, and helped establish a magnet high school for technology education.

Mr. Niehous told interviewers that he had learned lessons from his kidnapping. Some were big-picture – about life priorities, faith in God, the importance of doing good while one can. Some were more practical.

“I will never again live in a house that doesn’t have a window in the front door,” he said.

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